Today, it seems “busyness” is the measure of success. We power through our emails, conference calls, and business lunches at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, all this frantic activity has taken a toll on our patience. The result is that we no longer stop to listen to one another—how can we when we’re all so busy and important? The trouble, says Ed Hess, is that the ability that’s getting lost in the shuffle is the very one MUST HAVE to be a viable player in today’s workforce—the ability to truly listen.
“It used to be that the smartest guy in the room was the one who was constantly talking,” says Hess, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and author of the new book Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization. “Not anymore. Now, the smartest guy or gal in the room is the one who asks the right questions and then truly listens to what others have to say.”
In other words, the ability to truly listen is the most important 21st century job skill. As Hess explains in Learn or Die, it’s the core skill needed for the critical thinking, innovative thinking, collaboration, and real-time diagnosis and problem solving that only humans can do. And that’s important because it allows you to stay employed as technology takes over more and more jobs that people used to perform.
“Whether you have a ‘blue-collar’ or a ‘white-collar’ job, the result is the same,” notes Hess. “If what you do can be transformed into a software algorithm, technology will be able to do it faster and better than you. What technology won’t be able to do in the near future is think critically and innovatively and emotionally relate to other humans. These abilities all require open-minded, non-judgmental, and non-defensive listening.”
Unfortunately, many of us are terrible listeners who’ve picked up bad habits in order to stay afloat in today’s fast-paced business environment. Read on to learn more about our worst listening habits and what can be done to fix them.
Thinking about your response before the speaker is finished. Most of us operate on autopilot much of the time. Our natural way of thinking is to confirm what we already believe, while our knee-jerk emotional reaction to new information is to engage in the three “Ds”: to deny, defend, and deflect in order to protect our egos. When it comes to listening, here too our natural tendency is to confirm and defend; we focus more on ourselves than the person with whom we are speaking.
“Before the conversation begins, put yourself in a listening frame of mind with calmed emotions and a quiet ego,” advises Hess. “Listening requires concentration: Be present, in the moment, with an open mind. Take two minutes to get into the right frame of mind by taking some deep breaths and saying to yourself, Listening is not about me and Slow down. Don’t rush to conclusions. Seek to understand.”
Finishing the speaker’s sentence out loud or in your head. Today, we live in a constant state of “on to the next thing.” Our schedules are jam-packed, and as a result, we slip into survival mode, trying to move things along as quickly as possible, regardless of how important the interaction is. We stop listening and instead finish our conversation partner’s sentences in our heads. Of course, the downside is we don’t always get it right.
“Again, we humans prefer to simply confirm what we already think,” says Hess. “And trying to complete someone’s sentences is one way of doing that. We start to think, Well, I’ve heard this a thousand times before. I know what he’s going to say. And then we zone out. But you will miss important details when you allow yourself to do this. Good listeners are people who actively listen with the goal of truly trying to understand what the other person is saying. Only after understanding and reflecting does a good listener thoughtfully respond. Be aware that you’re making assumptions and inferences. And fight it by using exploratory questions to gain a deeper understanding of what the person is saying.”
Interrupting the speaker. Hess tells how when he was in school he would wave his hand ferociously while his teacher was still talking. He’d wave so ferociously that eventually she’d stop talking just to call on him. He learned to interrupt his teachers in order to be the first to give the right answer. He explains that it was his way of showing others how smart he was.
“Of course, we interrupt one another for a lot of reasons,” says Hess. “But many of them can be boiled down to our need to show how smart we are. Either we’re interrupting to correct the speaker or we’re interrupting to get to a key point before the speaker can. I had to work hard to change my behavior. I learned that others would not think less of me if I listened, waited until they were through talking, and reflected on what they said before responding. To the contrary, by listening, inquiring, and reflecting before responding, people saw that I respected them by listening. That made my meetings more productive and my relationships stronger.”
Letting your mind wander to think about something you think is more important. Multitasking has become a way of life for many of today’s professionals. But more and more studies are showing just how ineffective and unproductive multitasking makes us. So, remember that the next time you’re trying to think through one problem while you’re in a conversation about another one.
“Go slow and reflect,” advises Hess. “Intentionally think about what the other person is saying. Do you really understand? What did he or she really mean? Ask her if what you believe you heard is what she meant. Listening is not a competitive process; it is a relational one. It requires exploring another’s thinking with an open mind.”
Interpreting the speaker’s message in a way that makes you feel comfortable or smart. Remember the three Ds—deny, defend, and deflect. Here again, they rear their ugly head. Good listening is not about you—it is about the speaker and trying to understand and relate to him or her.
“Let me reiterate,” says Hess. “Listening is not about YOU! It is not a competition. It is not about you showing how smart you are. It is not about you winning. And in fact, when you do make it about you, I think you’ll find you achieve the opposite. Instead of people thinking you’re smart, they think you’re rude, inconsiderate, and pompous. Listening is about you showing you care enough about the speaker to focus on trying to understand his or her view or situation.”